Artist Jessica Bartram first showed her watercolour portraits of Notable Victorians (all of whom happened to be animals) at Industrees Gallery (now defunct) last year. She is currently creating portraits of a fresh set of characters and searching for a new gallery, but she kindly contributed a few designs of ascot-wearing lions for WORN’s Pin Party. Whether they are members of high society or the Dickensian fishmongers, chimney sweeps or strumpets of the streets, her characters are always fabulously dressed.
Clothing and props play a significant role in the establishment of character in your work. Do you get as much inspiration from hats, ties and monocles as you do from animals?
Yes, I’m most definitely attracted to the ornate and slightly mad elements of Victorian fashion – the crazy hats adorned with whole taxidermied birds, the mammoth sleeves, bustles. It’s a rich field from which to harvest all kinds of inspiration! I’m always trolling Flickr, Google images, and Tumblr old photos to use as reference, and it’s inevitably the crazier outfits that catch my eye. There’s a printout on my bulletin board of a portrait of a lady wearing a striped silk dress (with a tightly cinched waist sash and enormous mutton-leg sleeves) and a heavily feathered hat – she’s probably my next dress reference.
Why the Victorian era?
I think that element of my work was born when I started drawing animals (mostly bears at first) in clothing – particularly suits. When I searched for reference images, all my favourite suits dated from the 1900’s, and from there I started to look at dresses, and the rest, well, it’s actually history. Once my creatures found themselves in the Victorian era, the stories I’d always made up for the things I drew began to take on an additional dimension. I applied some of the amusing formality of the literature of the time to my characters’ histories, as well as attempting to add in quasi-Wildean wit. Oh! And the project on which I’m currently working has the same atmosphere because I recently began reading about Barnum’s American Museum (historical fiction like Susan Swan’s The Biggest Modern Woman of the World was a rich source of inspiration) and the culture of circuses and freak shows and became completely obsessed with the idea of creating my own history of an imaginary Victorian freak show.
You’ve written life stories for your imaginary subjects. How much do they exist off the paper for you?
I started inventing stories as soon as I was able to form coherent thought – I had an impressive herd of My Little Ponies when I was little, and each one had a name, a profession, and its own family dramas, which progressed each time they emerged from their storage box to continue the pony saga. Some of the adventures they had were quite exciting and involved rescuing silly Barbie dolls, who inevitably got themselves captured by whichever stuffed animal was playing the villain. Though I eventually quit playing with plastic ponies, I continued to invent tales about characters, both written and drawn. With my current creatures, I write their life stories after they’re painted, and their ‘life’ off the page depends on what story gets stirred up when I look at the finished piece. Some animals exude a definite history, or remind me of a character from the era. On the flip side there are the poor critters whose faces fail to spark a story and it’s ever so difficult to get something written for them. My current batch of characters are shaping up to have the most extensive stories yet, and they follow me around everyday life, suggesting new facets of their lives even when I’m not trying to think of them.
What did you wear in high school?
Ugh. For my first two years I dressed in dull jeans-and-shirts combos, often with shirts that were just a little too short in this awkward way, which, judging from all the later episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer I’ve been re-watching, was the trend. But still, unfortunate. Grade 11 was the worst – I decided that wearing skater shorts, striped knee-socks and t-shirts from crappy bands was the best way to dress. Thankfully not all the time, but I wince at my brief pop-punk phase nevertheless. The only highlight of my sad high school fashion was my prom dress – I based it on medieval dress and created the pattern and sewed it by hand, which was pretty damn awesome.
With neither cost nor society’s approval a deterrent, describe your fantasy wardrobe.
Oh goodness. I think a lot of my personal style is influenced by pretty colours or shiny things that catch my eye. I recently purchased a ridiculous pair of lovely, shiny gold shoes, confirming that I’m basically a magpie. But the more I immerse myself in Victorian photos and illustration, the more I want to design a dress with a subtle bustle, wear it everywhere and see how people react. I mean, they’re awesome and they provide padding if you have to sit on uncomfortable plastic airport chairs or something. Beyond that, if I had all the money I wanted to spend on my wardrobe, I’d frequent Anthropologie far more regularly (such pretty things), purchase a few Alexander McQueen pieces (especially the yellow and black dress Drew Barrymore wore at the TIFF premiere of Whip It. That dress haunts my dreams, I love it so). I’d also have a collection of sexy corsets and dresses from various decades – 1900′s all the way to the early 60′s (think Mad Men and Joan Holloway and va-va-voominess). Yeah, vintage clothing would definitely be a focus, as most of the stuff I really love is out of my price range right now.
Jessica’s Top 5 Late Fashion Icons
*Women on beaches in the 20′s and 30′s Alright, some of them could easily be alive, but I stick by my answer nevertheless. Swimsuits then were gorgeous and also sometimes quite jaunty.
*Alexander MacQueen He used antlers as an accessory in a runway show, which is definitely one of the many ways to gain my unending affection.
*This one’s a deadly combination of attitude and style – the indomitable Katharine Hepburn
interview by Max Mosher
photography by Deua Medeiros